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Ghosts of Celilo reminds viewers of lost local culture

by: Submitted Photo Rebecca Sandy

Audiences at the Newmark Theatre March 12 were reminded through a witty musical called 'The Ghosts of Celilo' of the devastation Native Americans experienced when the Celilo Falls was inundated in 1957 by the Dalles Dam, forever drowning a culture.

The story is told by four ghosts who are stuck at the bottom of the Columbia River, impatiently waiting to cross to the other side. When one of the ghosts discovers a beautiful wood-carved whistle, they're reminded how they each played a role in the lives of 'Chokey' and 'Train,' portrayed by Noah Hunt and Alex Thede.

When the two boys are kidnapped and thrown into a government boarding school, they're forced to learn the ways of a white society. Chokey, a Native American with long black hair, is mortified when the principal, Mrs. Lyle (Amy Jo Halliday), cuts off his traditional braids he has grown since the day he was born. Mrs. Lyle gives the responsibility to her daughter, Irene (Rebecca McDade), to not only change the boys' image but to direct them to the faith of God.

Although Irene attempts to follow her duties in developing the boys into well-behaved young men, she is challenged daily by Chokey, who believes the environment of the classroom is too cut and dry and would like to learn subjects through song and dance that are adapted from his Native American culture.

While Train is mute and emotionally fragile, Chokey stands by his side to advocate and protect him. When Train is inspired by Irene to use his voice to sing along with her, Chokey begins to respect Irene. The three of them all form a friendship and join together in escaping to fish Celilo Falls in a ceremony before they are buried forever.

Producer and playwright Marv Ross said, 'This work was initiated to showcase the depth and beauty of Native American music to non-Native audiences.'

The music was lively and, after seeing some tears come down from faces in the audience, I believe it healed the souls of those who carried the memories of Celilo Falls very close to their hearts.

I was given the opportunity to see the musical with my fellow Title VII students who come from schools around the Northwest. For some of us, we met new faces, but there was a sense of comfort knowing that we all shared the same Native American culture. We all sat together and watched a story during a time that some of our ancestors had been emotionally affected by.

While the musical will inspire non-Native American audiences to appreciate Native American culture, it certainly made me proud to be a part of a Native American family that is joined together from different tribes across the nation.

'When one culture diminishes another, both cultures are diminished,' Ross said. 'The Ghosts of Celilo' was a beautiful representation of how powerful it is when two cultures or more come together in harmony and respect each other's beliefs.

After the Army Corps of Engineers drowned the Celilo Falls with the Dalles Dam to generate power, it didn't understand how important a sanctuary the falls were to the Native American people who fished and traded there for many years.

There are stories that report that some Native Americans from the Celilo Village couldn't sleep well at night after the dam silenced the echoes of Celilo Falls forever. Some also say that, if you listen carefully, you can still hear the roar of the falls. One thing is certain though, the story of our Northwest's ancient Celilo will continue to be told to each generation, by Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike.